Rusty sports lovers get their kit on for a first run-out in three months
Outdoor sport kicked off across Lancashire yesterday and the message from players was: “It’s great to be back.”
Golfers, crown green bowlers, tennis players, cycling clubs and amateur footballers couldn’t wait to get their kit on to celebrate a major easing of Covid restrictions in England.
Some were even in action at one minute past midnight as three months of lockdown misery were finally lifted.
Tennis players from one village club met under floodlights to swing a racquet just as soon as the ban was removed.
Golfers teed off from first light to hit the fairways for the first time since early January.
Groups of cyclists were on the road before rush hour to feel the wind in their faces once again. And one group of friends organised a football match on Ashton Park, Preston to kick off the cobwebs after months of inactivity.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted yesterday to “kickstart a great British summer of sport.” He added that many people would “welcome the increased social contact.”
But he warned: “Despite today’s easement, everyone must continue to stick to the rules.”
Rusty golfers got back in the swing across Lancashire as clubs opened their doors for the first time in three months.
Players were teeing off from daybreak yesterday, delighted to be freed from the lockdown which has left all sports in limbo since the New Year.
At Preston Golf Club captain Stewart Birchall was the first to tee off in a fourball at 7.30am.
Three hours later he sank a putt on the 18th green and declared: “That was just brilliant. I’m a bit rusty - aren’t we all - but I’m just delighted to be back out on the course.
“It’s been terribly frustrating all this time. But the club has kept the course in great condition.
“Like all golfers I’ve been practising at home in the garden - even in the living room. I’ve bought a putting matt, although you wouldn’t have thought so with the way I putted today.
“It’s great to see the course really busy. Everyone has clearly missed it.”
Lady captain Jane Edwards was in the first group of women to tee off on the opening day.
She said: “It’s fantastic to be able to play again and see all our friends. It’s been dreadfully frustrating.
“I last played at the start of January so it couldn’t come soon enough.
“The course is very busy - it’s been difficult getting a tee time, even for the Lady Captain.”
Sue Heaney, who was also in the first ladies group to tee off, added: “There was no need to stop golf in the first place. It is the safest outdoor sport you can get.
“It’s been sad to see so many of the older men not being able to meet up at the club like they do every day.
“Those living alone have not known what to do for the past three months. It’s been unnecessary cruelty.
“I last played on January 3. My husband and I even played on Christmas Day just to get a game before things were locked down. “
Bowlers had more reason than most to celebrate being back on the greens yesterday . . . it is around 18 months since some of them rolled a wood in anger.
With most competitions suspended last summer due to lockdown, many players haven’t had a competitive game since September 2019.
And clubs fear some will have decided to jack it in when the local leagues start up again in two weeks time.
“For some players to be unable to bowl for this length of time will have taken its toll,” said Martin Hill, a committee member at the Thurlby Club on Egerton Road in Preston.
“Bowling keeps the older ones mobile and their joints will have stiffened up by now. Some have left, some have passed away. So we are just waiting to see how many will return.”
The Thurlby Club should have stepped up to the first division of the Preston and District Bowls League last season after a successful 2019. But now, 18 months on, the club has been forced to withdraw because of a lack of players.
It still has teams in four other competitions, including the Preston and District Ladies League. And most of those players will be out practising on the club’s lush green over the next few days.
During lockdown the Thurlby lost its bowls pavilion due to a mystery fire and is working hard to replace it. But the floodlights which were powered from there are currently out of commission.
Club president David West said: “We’re just delighted we can start using the green again. Apart from some social bowling over four weekends last September, it’s been very frustrating not being able to play.
“We still aren’t able to use the club indoors for a few more weeks because of lockdown restrictions. But at least this is a step forward towards some kind of normality.”
Tennis coach Declan Acornley had a spring in his step yesterday for the first time in months when he was able to get on court with his first client of 2021.
Overnight the Longton Tennis Club pro has gone from sitting at home to working more than 40 hours this week thanks to the Government lifting the ban on outdoor sports.
His first pupil bright and early yesterday was Gail Warren who couldn’t wait to hit some shots at the club on School Lane after undergoing knee surgery during lockdown.
“I’m raring to go,” she said. “The last time I hit a ball was October, so I’m ready to get back to it. It’s ridiculous that sports like tennis have been banned. It’s socially distanced either side of a net for goodness sake.”
Declan admitted he was “glad to be back,” especially earning a living.
“Players are keen to get playing again as soon as they can. My diary is pretty full this week - I’ve got 40-plus hours booked.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the sport that we can start up again. We were cleaning the courts last week and there was a really positive feeling around the place.
"It’s not just the physical benefits of playing sport, it’s the mental health benefits too. We’ve all been incredibly frustrated not to be able to get on the courts. But now we’re back and it’s great.”
Members of Withnell Tennis Club met at just after midnight to serve up a practice session.
Sally Barnes said: “It’s been a long, dark winter without being able to play tennis due to lockdown.
"We were just so keen to get started again so we decided to knock a few balls over the net.”